By Ethan Diamandas
Boos filled the air as Carabins striker Guy-Frank Essomé Penda marched towards the box. The 2021 U Sports MVP picked up the ball and set it on the turf, as Ravens keeper Kyle Potter buzzed in net.
It seemed unfathomable, but the entirety of the U Sports men’s soccer season came down to one moment. A national gold medal was on the line, and this penalty would decide it – a save keeps Carleton alive, a goal hands Montreal the championship.
The Carabins’ superstar calmly jogged towards the ball and blasted it off the crossbar and into the back of the net.
Potter didn’t stand a chance.
Only then did the moment sink in. The keeper flopped to the ground, flat on his back as Montreal rushed the field to celebrate. Epically loud all tournament, the Ravens’ Perch crowd reached its quietest point.
Carleton’s first two wins in tournament brought forth feelings of shock, joy, excitement, and accomplishment. Now, heartbreak was all that remained.
“My old coach used to say, ‘It’s a funny old game,’” Ravens head coach Kwesi Loney said. “You put so much into it; you expect so much out of it. (I’m) just really proud of my players, really proud of the fight to the very last whistle.”
Every game Carleton played in the national tournament grew more and more unbelievable. Sunday’s 3-2 penalty-kick loss to Montreal was by far the craziest.
It was a cruel loss in the most twisted fashion. Carleton cruised on top for most of the game, only to fall behind a goal, tie it up on the final kick of extra time, then lose in penalty kicks.
Loney knows the feeling – he was the captain of the Ravens team that fell short in the gold medal finals in 2002, so he said he understands the pain his graduating players feel.
“For me, that was my final game, so the last time I was able to put the jersey on for my school,” Loney said reflecting on a bitter moment from 19 years ago.
The game started favourably, though, as the Ravens struck first in the 19th minute when a beautiful lob hit Luca Piccioli in stride with no defenders in front of him. Piccioli quickly crossed the ball to a sliding Matteo de Brienne who redirected it into the Carabins’ net.
Always the showman, de Brienne celebrated his goal with an emphatic backflip, much to the amusement of the packed Ottawa bleachers.
The rookie’s goal set the tone – and brought the Ravens’ ‘Bronson Boys’ cheering section to life, especially after Montreal’s bench received one of its four yellow cards on the evening.
“It’s great to see the fan base have such a connection to the games,” Loney said. “The emotion, the passion, the singing, we feel all that as players and coaches on the field.”
As things heated up in the stands, the play on the field picked up in the game’s dying minutes. A foul just outside the box allowed Montreal to tie the game up with a 90th minute free-kick snipe, sending the game to extra time, which brought more high-strung emotion.
The Carabins broke through with a goal in the 114th minute to take a commanding lead, but Ravens’ forward Danny Assaf scored the equalizer a mere seconds before the final whistle, sending the home fans into a frenzy. It was short-lived, as Montreal outshot Carleton 5-4 in penalties to win the tournament.
“I’ve never seen a tournament that had that many overtime finishes, that many dramatic finishes,” Loney said. “I think that has to definitely go down in history.
“From a university perspective, we have something great going on in our Canadian (soccer) systems. I think we need to keep pushing it and keep growing it. We have some great, young talent and you can see the parity throughout the different teams we play and throughout the country.”
For as devastated and exhausted as Ravens players felt – they had just played 360 minutes of soccer in four days – their head coach stressed the fact that this loss doesn’t determine their identity.
“The game doesn’t define them,” Loney said. “And I hope they take these moments and use them as life lessons, and they apply them, whether it be in their work, whether it be in their families, as they grow as young men.
“I think the resiliency that we showed is something that you can carry for the rest of your life.”
A silver medal isn’t what the Ravens wanted, but they worked hard to get it, and they’ll have a chance to fight again next year.
“Sometimes you’re on the top, sometimes you’re on the bottom,” Loney said. “A lot of emotional highs and lows, but that’s what’s great about sport, right? You get to lick your wounds and come back and do it again.”
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